COULD STEVEN SPIELBERG please avoid the following in his next movie: Boys on bicycles, rebirth, the sky lighting up like the Fourth of July and another pre-teen struggling in an adult world?

You know, for variety.

J. G. Ballard's much-touted novel of the '30s, on which "Empire of the Sun" is based, turns out to be perfect for Spielberg's Peter Pannish purposes. Jim (Christian Bale), a British child raised in Shanghai, battles a swiftly eroding childhood, while the adults around him fight World War II. The grown-ups are Japanese invaders, British and American Shanghai residents (soon to be prisoners), and teeming Chinese crowds (it's never clear why they teem so much; probably it's the war).

Jim, used to a leisurely life of country clubs and servants, is suddenly separated from his parents (lost among the teem-sters). Reduced to wandering, gamin-like, in the streets and his vast but now-empty home, he hooks up with Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), a pair of American seamen hiding out from the Japanese. Soon all three are interned by the Japanese in Soochow Creek camp.

In the camp (which is most of the movie), Jim becomes something between camp ferret and Junior Christ, scrounging for nails and screws and extra potatoes for former neighbor Mrs. Victor -- and imploring the sadistic commandant to stop beating prisoners. He's also continuing his Latin lessons and dreams of escaping with his idol Basie and of becoming a fighter pilot (a whim never realized, which is odd for the gratification-monger Spielberg).

Jim has a strange ally, a Japanese kid living outside the camp who also has model planes and dreams of becoming a pilot. The Japanese will later save Jim's life, and in the aforementioned rebirth section, Jim will attempt to revive him. "I can bring anyone back," Jim insists.

Many scenes are arranged cinematically unto themselves -- Allen Daviau's camera work has an over-evocative mistiness and Michael Kahn's editing wraps things up in a flashy package -- but the scenes seem only a pointless collection of set pieces designed to flex some Spielberg cine-muscle. (Tom Stoppard is credited with the screenplay but there seems to be nothing of his caustic wit here.)

Behind the trademark fancy package is a troubling sensibility, too. Spielberg seems unable to come to terms with anything real: A hobo hangs outside Jim's house, but he's more theatrically done-up than a Henson Muppet. Jim magically avoids bullets rushing through pitched street battles. British children, chauffeured to a masquerade party, look at the rioting crowds from Rolls Royce windows (one child is even dressed like Marie Antoinette). As a plane drops its bombs in front of him, Jim delights himself in the aircraft's features. The war is just a comic strip for him, just as the movies (and quite possibly life) are for Spielberg.

In a way, Spielberg is to film what Michael Jackson is to pop. Both grew up within their respective arts rather than in real life, their human growth on perpetual hold. Thus, we're doomed to watching (or hearing) their endless perspectives on the ways of childhood. And after much of this, the outside world -- with its wars, diseases, divorces and harried adults punching the clock and crowding the beltway -- seems a bloody relief.


At area theaters.